Sunday, November 4, 2012
Mitt Romney's Bailout Bonanza
October 17, 2012
This article appeared in the November 5, 2012 edition of The Nation.
This investigation was supported by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute and by the Puffin Foundation. Elements of it appear in Palast’s new book, Billionaires & Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps (Seven Stories). Research assistance by Zach D. Roberts, Ari Paul, Nader Atassi and Eric Wuestewald.
Mitt Romney’s opposition to the auto bailout has haunted him on the campaign trail, especially in Rust Belt states like Ohio. There, in September, the Obama campaign launched television ads blasting Romney’s November 2008 New York Times op-ed, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” But Romney has done a good job of concealing, until now, the fact that he and his wife, Ann, personally gained at least $15.3 million from the bailout—and a few of Romney’s most important Wall Street donors made more than $4 billion. Their gains, and the Romneys’, were astronomical—more than 3,000 percent on their investment.
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Greg Palast is an economist and financial investigator turned journalist whose series on vulture funds appeared on BBC...
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It all starts with Delphi Automotive, a former General Motors subsidiary whose auto parts remain essential to GM’s production lines. No bailout of GM—or Chrysler, for that matter—could have been successful without saving Delphi. So, in addition to making massive loans to automakers in 2009, the federal government sent, directly or indirectly, more than $12.9 billion to Delphi—and to the hedge funds that had gained control over it.
One of the hedge funds profiting from that bailout—?$1.28 billion so far—is Elliott Management, directed by ?Paul Singer. According to The Wall Street Journal, Singer has given more to support GOP candidates—$2.3 million—than anyone else on Wall Street this election season. His personal giving is matched by that of his colleagues at Elliott; collectively, they have donated $3.4 million to help elect Republicans this season, while giving only $1,650 to Democrats. And Singer is influential with the GOP presidential candidate; he’s not only an informal adviser but, according to the Journal, his support was critical in helping push Representative Paul Ryan onto the ticket.
Singer, whom Fortune magazine calls a “passionate defender of the 1%,” has carved out a specialty investing in distressed firms and distressed nations, which he does by buying up their debt for pennies on the dollar and then demanding payment in full. This so-called “vulture investor” received $58 million on Peruvian debt that he snapped up for $11.4 million, and $90 million on Congolese debt that he bought for a mere $20 million. In the process, he’s built one of the largest private equity firms in the nation, and over decades he’s racked up an unusually high average return on investments of 14 percent.
Other GOP presidential hopefuls chased Singer’s endorsement, but Mitt chased Singer with his own checkbook, investing at least $1 million with Elliott through Ann Romney’s blind trust (it could be far more, but the Romneys have declined to disclose exactly how much). Along the way, Singer gained a reputation, according to Fortune, “for strong-arming his way to profit.” That is certainly what happened at Delphi.
* * *
Delphi, once the Delco unit of General Motors, was spun off into a separate company in 1999. Alone, Delphi foundered, declaring bankruptcy in 2005, after which vulture hedge funds, led by Silver Point Capital, began to buy up the company’s old debt. Later, as the nation’s financial crisis accelerated, Singer’s Elliott bought Delphi debt, as did John Paulson & Co. John Paulson, like Singer, is a $1 million donor to Romney. Also investing was Third Point, run by Daniel Loeb, who was once an Obama supporter but who this summer hosted a $25,000-a-plate fundraiser for Romney and personally donated about $500,000 to the GOP.
As Delphi was in bankruptcy, making few payments, the bonds were junk, considered toxic by the banks holding them. The hedge funds were able to pick up the securities for a song; most of Elliott’s purchases cost just 20 cents on the dollar of their face value.
By the end of June 2009, with the bailout negotiations in full swing, the hedge funds, under Singer’s lead, used their bonds to buy up a controlling interest in Delphi’s stock. According to SEC filings, they paid, on average, an equivalent of only 67 cents per share.
Just two years later, in November 2011, the Singer syndicate took Delphi public at $22 a share, turning an eye-popping profit of more than 3,000 percent. Singer’s fund investors scored a gain of $904 million, all courtesy of the US taxpayer. But that’s not all. In the year since Delphi began trading publicly, its stock has soared 45 percent. Loeb’s gains so far for Third Point: $390 million. The gains for Silver Point, headed by two Goldman Sachs alums: $894 million. John Paulson’s fund, which has already sold half its holdings, has a $2.6 billion gain. And Singer’s funds and partners, combining what they’ve sold and what they hold, have $1.29 billion in profits, about forty-four times their original investment.
Yet without taking billions in taxpayer bailout funds—and slashing worker pensions—the hedge funds’ investment in Delphi would not have been worth a single dollar, according to calculations by GM and the US Treasury.
Altogether, in direct and indirect payouts, the government padded these investors’ profits handsomely. The Treasury allowed GM to give Delphi at least $2.8 billion of funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to keep Delphi in business. GM also forgave $2.5 billion in debt owed to it by Delphi, and $2 billion due from Singer and company upon Delphi’s exit from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The money GM forgave was effectively owed to the Treasury, which had by then become the majority owner of GM as a result of the bailout. Then there was the big one: the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation took over paying all of Delphi’s retiree pensions. The cost to the taxpayer: $5.6 billion. The bottom line: the hedge funds’ paydays were made possible by a generous donation of $12.9 billion from US taxpayers.
* * *
One of President Obama’s first acts in office, in February 2009, was to form the Auto Task Force with the goal of saving GM, Chrysler, their suppliers and, most important, auto industry jobs. Crucial to the plan was saving Delphi, which then employed more than 25,000 union workers.
Obama hired Steven Rattner, himself a millionaire hedge fund manager, to head the task force that would negotiate with the troubled firms and their creditors to avoid the collapse of the entire industry. In Rattner’s memoir of the affair, Overhaul, he describes a closed-door meeting held in March 2009 to resolve Delphi’s fate. He writes that Delphi, now in the possession of its hedge fund creditors, told the Treasury and GM to hand over $350 million immediately, “because if you don’t, we’ll shut you down.” His explanation was corroborated by Delphi’s chief financial officer, John Sheehan, who said in a sworn deposition in July 2009 that the hedge fund debt holders backed up their threat with “an analysis of the cost to GM if Delphi were unwilling or unable to provide supply to GM,” forcing a “shutdown.” It would take “years and tens of billions” for GM to replace Delphi’s parts. At that bleak moment, GM had neither. The automaker had left the inventory of its steering column and other key components in Delphi’s hands. If Delphi laid siege to GM’s parts supply, the bailout would fail and GM would have to be liquidated or sold off—as would another Delphi dependent, Chrysler.
Rattner could not believe that Delphi’s management—now effectively under the hedge funders’ control—would “want to be perceived as holding GM hostage at such a precarious economic moment.” One Wall Street Journal analyst suggested that Singer was treating Delphi “like a third world country.” Rattner likened the subsidies demanded by Delphi’s debt holders to “extortion demands by the Barbary pirates.”
Romney has slammed the bailout as a payoff to the auto workers union. But that certainly wasn’t true for the bailout of Delphi. Once the hedge funders, including Singer—a deep-pocketed right-wing donor and activist who serves as chair of the conservative, anti-union Manhattan Institute—took control of the firm, they rid Delphi of every single one of its 25,200 unionized workers.
Of the twenty-nine Delphi plants operating in the United States when the hedge funders began buying up control, only four remain, with not a single union production worker. Romney’s “job creators” did create jobs—in China, where Delphi now produces the parts used by GM and other major automakers here and abroad. Delphi is now incorporated overseas, leaving the company with 5,000 employees in the United States (versus almost 100,000 abroad).
Third Point’s Daniel Loeb, whose net worth of $1.3 billion owes much to his share in the Delphi windfall, told his fund’s backers this past July that Delphi remains an excellent investment because it has “virtually no North American unionized labor” and, thanks to US taxpayers, “significantly smaller pension liabilities than almost all of its peers.”
* * *
Another outcome may have been possible. In June 2009, the Treasury and GM announced a bailout deal they’d crafted over months with the cooperation of the United Auto Workers. GM would take back control of Delphi via a joint venture with Platinum Equity, a buyout firm led by billionaire Tom Gores, a self-described “Michigan man” who grew up in the shadow of Delphi’s Flint plant.
The final Platinum plan, according to Delphi’s official statement posted on Marketwire in June 2009, lists plants in fourteen locations slated for closing, which would have left several of Delphi’s plants still in business, still unionized—and still in the United States. Crucially, the deal would have returned key Delphi operations, including the production of steering columns, directly to GM.
The hedge funders stunned Delphi by refusing to accept the Platinum plan. Harshly criticizing it as a “sweetheart deal,” they demanded 45 cents on the dollar for the debt bonds they had bought on the cheap—more than double what the Treasury-brokered Platinum deal would pay.
Then the Singer-led debt holders swooped in. After the Platinum deal was announced, Elliott Management quietly tripled its holdings of Delphi bonds, purchased at just one-fifth of their face value. By joining forces with Silver Point, Paulson and Loeb, Singer now controlled Delphi’s fate.
Gores, Delphi and UAW officials declined to respond to queries about the deal on the record, but the sworn deposition by Delphi CFO Sheehan (confidential then, but later posted on Scribd.com) lets us in on the tense negotiations culminating in a twenty-hour showdown between Delphi, GM, the UAW, the Auto Task Force and the US pension agency, on the one hand, and Singer’s hedge fund group, on the other. Delphi said it would dump the Platinum deal if the hedge funds would agree to terms that would take care of all stakeholders, including the following stipulation: “Agree on plan structure to maximize job preservation.”
The hedge funders said no, since they had a billion-dollar ace up their sleeve. According to Sheehan, Singer and company’s controlling interest allowed them to force the bankruptcy judge to hold an auction for all of Delphi’s stock. The debt holders outbid the Michigan Man’s team, offering $3.5 billion. But it wasn’t $3.5 billion in cash: under the rules of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, debtors-in-possession may bid the face value of their bonds rather than their current market value, which at the time was significantly lower. Under the Platinum deal, Delphi would have had much more in real money for operations: $250 million in cash from Gores, another $250 million in credit, and $3.1 billion in “exit financing” from GM, all of it backed up by TARP. Still, under Chapter 11 rules, the Platinum bid was technically lower. And that’s how Singer’s funds—which included the Romneys’ investment—came to buy Delphi for the equivalent of only 67 cents a share.
Rattner and GM, embarrassingly outmaneuvered, tried to put a good face on it. As Rattner wrote in his memoir, “In truth we didn’t care who got Delphi as long as GM could extricate itself from the continual drain on its finances and assure itself of a reliable supply of parts.”
* * *
Even before the hedge funds won their bid for Delphi’s stock, they were already squeezing the parts supplier and its workforce. In February 2009, Delphi, claiming a cash shortage, unilaterally terminated health insurance for its nonunion pensioners. But according to Rattner, the Treasury’s Task Force uncovered foggy accounting hiding the fact that the debt holders had deliberately withheld millions of dollars in cash sitting in Delphi accounts. Even after this discovery, the creditors still refused to release the funds.
The savings to the hedge fund billionaires of dropping retiree insurance was peanuts—$70 million a year—compared with the profits they later extracted from Delphi. But the harm to Delphi retirees was severe. Bruce Naylor of Kokomo, Indiana, had been forced into retirement at the age of 54 in 2006, when Delphi began to move its plants overseas. Naylor’s promised pension was slashed 40 percent, and his health insurance and life insurance were canceled. Though he had thirty-six years of experience under his belt as an engineer with GM and Delphi, he couldn’t find another job as an engineer—and he doesn’t know a single former co-worker who has found new employment in his or her field, either. Naylor ended up getting work at a local grocery store. That job gone, he now sells cars online for commission, bringing in one-fifth of what he earned before he was laid off from Delphi.
Even with his wife Judy’s income as a nurse, it hasn’t been enough: the Naylors just declared bankruptcy, and their home is in foreclosure.
After the hedge fund takeover of Delphi, the squeeze on workers intensified through attacks on their pensions. During its years of economic trouble, Delphi had been chronically shorting payments to its pension funds—and by July 2009, they were underfunded by $7 billion. That month, Singer’s hedge fund group won the bid for control of Delphi’s stock and made clear they would neither make up the shortfall nor pay any more US worker pensions. Checkmated by the hedge funders, the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation agreed to take over Delphi’s pension payments. The PBGC would eat the shortfall.
With Delphi’s new owners relieved of its healthcare and pension obligations, its debts to GM and its union contracts—?and now loaded with subsidies from GM funded by TARP—the company’s market value rose from zero to approximately ?$10.5 billion today.
* * *
But there was still a bit of unfinished business: President Obama needed to be blamed for the pension disaster. In a television ad airing in swing states since September, one retired Delphi manager says, “The Obama administration decided to terminate my pension, and I took a 40 percent reduction in my pension.”
Another retiree, Mary Miller, says, “I really struggle to pay for the basics…. I would ask President Obama why I had no rights, and he had all the rights to take my pension away—and never ever look back and say, ‘Not only did I take it from Mary Miller, I took it from 20,000 other people.’”
These people are real. But it’s clear that these former workers, now struggling to scrape by, were hardly in the position to put together $7 million in ad buys to publicize their plight. The ads were paid for by Let Freedom Ring, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit advocacy organization partially funded by Jack Templeton Jr., a billionaire evangelical whose foundation has sponsored lectures at the Manhattan Institute (the anti-union think tank whose board of directors includes not only Singer but Loeb). The ads also conveniently leave out the fact that the law sets specific ceilings on what the PBGC is allowed to pay retirees—regardless of what they were originally owed.
In June 2011, Charles and David Koch hosted a group of multimillionaires at a retreat in Vail, Colorado. In secret recordings obtained by investigator Brad Friedman, the host, Charles Koch, thanks Singer and Templeton, among others, for each donating more than $1 million to the Koch brothers’ 2012 anti-Obama election war chest.
Of course, it wasn’t Obama who refused to pay the Delphi pensions; it was Paul Singer and the other hedge funds controlling Delphi. The salaried workers’ pensions were, after all, an obligation of Delphi’s owners, not the government. Delphi’s stockholders—the Romneys included—had one easy way to rectify the harm to these pensioners, much as GM did for its workers: just pay up.
Making good on the full pensions for salaried workers would cost Delphi a one-time charge of less than $1 billion. This year, Delphi was flush with $1.4 billion in cash—?meaning its owners could have made the pensioners whole ?and still cleared a profit. Instead, in May, Delphi chose to use most of those funds to take over auto parts plants in Asia at ?a cost of $972 million—purchased from Bain Capital.
* * *
That leaves one final question: Exactly how much did the Romneys make off the auto bailout? Queries to the campaign and the Romneys’ trustee have gone unanswered. And Romney has yet to disclose the crucial year of his tax returns, 2009. But whatever the tally, it was one sweet deal. The Romneys were invested with Elliott Management by the end of 2010, before Delphi was publicly traded. So, in effect, they got Delphi stock at Singer’s initial dirt-cheap price. When Delphi’s owners took the company public in November 2011, the Romneys were in—and they hit the jackpot.
In their 2011 and 2012 Federal Financial Disclosure filing, Ann Romney’s trust lists “more than $1 million” invested with Elliott. This is the description for all of her big investments—the minimal disclosure required by law. (Had Romney kept the holding in his own name, he would have had to reveal if his investment with Singer had made more than $50 million.)
It is reasonable to assume that Singer treated the Romneys the same as his other investors, with a third of their portfolio invested in Delphi by the time of the 2011 initial public offering. This means that with an investment of at least $1 million, their smallest possible gain when Delphi went public would have been $10.2 million, plus another $10.2 million for each million handed to Singer—all gains made possible by the auto bailout.
But that’s just the beginning. Since the November 2011 IPO, Delphi’s stock has roared upward, boosting the Romneys’ Delphi windfall from $10.2 million to $15.3 million for each million they invested with Singer.
But what if the Romneys invested a bit more with Singer: let’s say a mere 3 percent of their reported net worth, or ?$7.5 million? (After all, ABC News reported—and Romney didn’t deny—that he invested “a huge chunk of his vast wealth” with Singer.) Then their take from the auto bailout so far would reach a stunning $115 million.
The Romneys’ exact gain, however, remains nearly ?invisible—and untaxed—because Singer cashed out only a fragment of the windfall in 2011. And the Singer-led hedge funds have been able to keep almost all of Delphi’s profits untaxed ?by moving Delphi’s incorporation from Troy, Michigan, to the Isle of Jersey, a tax haven off the coast of France.
The Romneys might insist that the funds were given to Singer, Mitt’s key donor, only through Ann’s blind trust. But as Mitt Romney said some years ago of Ted Kennedy, “The blind trust is an age-old ruse, if you will. Which is to say, you can always tell a blind trust what it can and cannot do.” Romney, who reminds us often that he was CEO of a hedge fund, can certainly read Elliott Management’s SEC statements, and he knows Ann’s trust is invested heavily in a fund whose No. 1 stake is with Delphi.
Nevertheless, even if the Romneys were blind to their initial investment in Elliott, they would have known by the beginning of 2010 that they had a massive position in Delphi and would make a fortune from the bailout and TARP funds. Delphi is not a minor investment for Singer; it is his main holding. To invest in Elliott is essentially a “Delphi play”: that is, investing with Singer means buying a piece of the auto bailout.
Mitt Romney may indeed have wanted to let Detroit die. But if the auto industry was going to be bailed out after all, the Romneys apparently couldn’t resist getting in on a piece of ?the action.
Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Armed Madhouse and Vultures' Picnic.
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